I know where I am, but I am not sure how I got here.
I am about a half-mile south of Mitchell Dam in Coosa County. The bridge on Alabama 22 is half again as far away. Nothing much on that highway but trees on either side. Forests that would swallow it without a trace in a few years without human intervention. You break down anywhere on that stretch between Rockford and Verbena and you better pray that you can flag down the occasional log truck, because your cell phone won’t have enough signal to be tracked by the government, let alone make a call. But I can say that about most of Coosa County. It is a good place for a person to simply disappear. Many have.
I have stood on this spot before. A narrow strip of Bermuda that is outrageously out of place, a little patch of grass that mimics a manicured subdivision lawn. It is at the river’s edge. A cabin is perched on the hillside up-slope. The riverbank on this side of the Coosa is steep but gradual, and a few other cabins squat along the bank back toward the highway. The one behind me was once a mobile home, but a skillful carpenter framed it in so that it looks like a cabin. I know this because I tried to sell it for a man once, long ago. An over-priced cabin with a secret.
The other side of the river is wild and beautiful. A shear bluff 500 feet down to the waterline. Limestone outcrops punctuate gnarled and stunted oaks and hickories, their branches heavy with Spanish moss that seems oddly out of place this far from the coast.
The current is swift here. Deceptively so. The surface is gunmetal gray, but the roiling murky brown water hidden underneath swirls to the surface and then submerges again.
I watch this silently. Try to read the river like an old manuscript. In my mind’s eye I can see the Coosa when it ran wild before the dam. Back when hundred-year floods sent sharecropper’s houses, barns, and livestock rolling past this spot toward the Gulf.
There are fish in this river. Big fish. Old men who sit out front of Kelly’s Crossroads store talk about catfish as big as Buicks below the dam, hovering silently in the murky depths. Big blind yellow-cats that patrol the bottom at depths where no sunlight has ever penetrated. Some will swear on a stack of Bibles that Alabama Power can’t hire divers to inspect the dam below the surface, because they know what’s down there. They have heard the old stories of men who went down and never came back up. About the one who made it back to the surface but spent the rest of his years wide-eyed and silent in a padded room up at the nervous hospital in Tuscaloosa.
I suddenly realize that I am not alone. I am standing next to a stranger. He is casting into the depths with heavy tackle, long stout rod and spinning reel with 100-pound test line, the kind of rig you would see on a charter boat in the Gulf, or fishing for marlin in the Keys.
I watch him silently. He casts upstream and lets the line run by with the current. He doesn’t look at me.
“They’re running” he says.
I don’t recognize his accent, but it’s not one from around here. His weathered face is partially hidden under a faded black Harley Davidson baseball cap. A skull patch with “Live to Ride – Ride to Live” on the front. Shirt sleeves rolled up above the elbows exposing tattoos of dark angels in hellish landscapes.
“You ride?” I ask. I’m looking for common ground. “Maybe we can hook-up and ride to…”
He waves me off mid-sentence.
“Today we fish” he says.
In an instant I see something roll up through the surface. Something big. Great White shark big. Flash of white belly in the twilight, the size and color of a beech log. It is gone in the blink of an eye, slipping back silently below the current.
I wonder if he too saw, but he has turned away from me. “Pick up that rig and cast upstream. Let it float with the current. Let her take it and run, then snatch that pole back with both hands to set the hook. You best be ready when she hits it.”
I do as he says. I see the bait plop through the surface and disappear. I watch the line as it moves with the current and passes where I stand on the bank. His line is still in the water, but he’s no longer watching it. His is gaze has turned to me.
I feel the line tug. Watch all the slack vanish and see the rod tip snap downward.
“Steady… steady… now. Snatch it!”
I feel every muscle in my body tense as I jerk the rod backwards with both hands. The pull on the line is immovable. I have hooked something so big that it is pulling me toward the murky water as it moves downstream. In a millisecond I realize that I am the one who is hooked. I am the one who is being played. I am caught. My mind screams “let go, let go,” but I cannot.
I turn to the man for help, but he is gone. His voice is a whisper in my ear. “You want to ride, son? Let’s ride. Now taste and see that the Lord is good.”
I begin to scream.
And then I wake up.